I came of age in the era of political correctness. My childhood in the 70s was full of plenty of opinion, judgment, racism, sexism, economic disparity. Children see the world around them that their parents create- and very little beyond that. They absorb the opinions, words and feelings of their grandparents, their pastors and rabbis, their teachers, their neighbors. They get admonished for "saying the wrong thing", even if they are only repeating what they have been told - or making sense of what they have seen.
I don't remember everything, clearly, of course. My early childhood was generally one of privilege, and my Long Island upbringing would be celebrated by the Republican party. Still, somehow, I was born a little off and didn't understand The Rules. Every preschool playgroup I went to, I made friends with the black girl and was openly denied these friendships to take place in our world. My three best friends in early grade school were Filipina, Italian and Jewish- in a land of lily white Christianity. It's not that I never had white girlfriends, it is that they were never my close friends other than our parents were friends and we spent all of our time together. You don't always get to choose these things. Proximity and cooperation from adults is what makes and breaks your social life. I also dreamed of being an Olympic skater, but never got the lessons I wanted for that, either. It becomes how life is, instead of how life should be- if live ever should be exactly as we want it.
It wasn't until college in the late 80s and early 90s that I really got to challenge the views I was raised with. I was still on the wrong side of our preppy culture, maybe because I just didn't instinctually hate. I do know that when all my classmates would fight and pick sides and gang up and make cliques, I would insist on making everyone try to get along. Was I perfect? No. Did I sometimes insult the weak kid in the group? Sure. Was I ever the target of bullying? Certainly. Finding a safer identity in a sea of misfits was preferable to being the bottom of the totem pole in the sea of the popular. My brother was popular, I was not. Still, even among his friends, I was nice enough and not subject to too much torment.
Some girls will cut off their toe to get into the glass slipper. Others will starve themselves to get into the tiny dress. I didn't see the point in that, and for good or bad, it set my course toward an alternative destiny. I would never be successful the way a girl of my upbringing should be. Even now, over 20 years later, I wonder what life I would have ruined for myself if I had just tried a little harder to fit in, ate a little less, dressed a little nicer. I also wonder what kind of life I would have made had I been encouraged to pursue studies that I was good at, and a lifestyle that made me happy. In between it all, I had to survive the demise of my alcoholic parents' marriage and livelihood. And that is never socially acceptable nor emotionally supportive.
I learned about bias in my undergrad, about how all of us have it because it is impossible not to have it. We are biased from our point of view, and that is not just our opinions, but also the impact the opinions of others have made upon our lives. Someone who didn't know me would assume I was a spoiled white girl from the East Coast. Until they met me and found out that I was not spoiled, and that kindness is an internal virtue- not an external show of manners. I learned to take criticism better. Not because all criticism was equally valid, but because sometimes I needed to hear the inputs, and sometimes I needed to learn to evaluate the difference between putting me down and letting me know I was mistaken. I had been raised on criticism, and had to reconstruct a shred of self esteem in order to find out what was important for me- and what was not. I learned to try to make fewer friends, but understand more people. I learned to be comfortable in differences instead of angry. Needless to say, that is no more a very popular position today than it was 20 years ago. Diversity was for weirdos, hippies and Quakers. Thank God I found them.
It turns out, after all, I descend from a family of independent and spirited thinkers. I am proud to know that my great ancestor Elias Hicks was a famous Quaker speaker, who spoke up often and adamantly against inequality. He made his career as an Abolitionist, long before it was popular or even thought much about. His very life's work about boycotting slave produced goods speaks as loudly today as it did 200 years ago. He refused to touch a cotton blanket laid over him upon his death bed. I didn't know him growing up, I found him later in my life. I think today of my own struggles to boycott goods and actively NOT participate in actions I find degrading and exploitatory. Yet, I live a modern life and own a car and electronics. Already, I have failed that litmus test if that is the only test there is to pass. But, I suspect, it is not.
Another family member, much closer in generation, was Helen Hicks, the first professional woman golfer. Whether you think golf is a sign of oppression or the pasttime of the wealthy, it is a sport. And for this great aunt of mine, she broke barriers for all women athletes as she traveled the country and got paid to promote her athletic skills. She died before I could know her, but I am proud to know she too stood up and spoke her truth, in her capacity. There is a picture of her with her brother, my grandfather, that I see often and cherish. It is her spirit of humanity that runs in our blood. I don't play golf at all, and I am okay with that. I don't know what she would have thought of gay marriage (she was single a long time, but later met her husband and retired). I don't know what she thought of blacks and whites being equal. I don't know if she harbored feelings for or against the Jews. If she was a product of her times, she most certainly had a chance to question all the social boundaries we question today, but from a different bias. I know the world of women's sports is different because of her, and that transcends many boundaries of identity.
I am finding myself divesting from political correctness. It, like affirmative action, is a useful tool, a beginner's guide, to bring mindfulness to the ways in which discriminate against others depending on our belief. Still, it holds us back in other ways. If we can't acknowledge differences, we cannot amend imbalances- and we cannot grow past the limits this sets. It does not mean the opposite, either. There is no call to arm or harm those with whom I disagree.
Just about 20 years ago, I learned the difference between tolerance and acceptance. At a Quaker yearly meeting, two gay men who were married care of the Pima Meeting in Tucson spoke of the history of marriage in the church, the history of gay union- in and outside of the church- and the need for us to see gay people as equal in every way, and different only in one. Of course, as I was among Quakers, I had already learned to challenge many beliefs about inequality- and even the insidious ones within feminism. This blew open my mind and changed my world view forever. This was not about "tolerating" people, because who was I to know better and "put up with" their existence. And truly, taking this understanding of tolerance everywhere with me ever since, I have seen the million ways intolerance has been applied to that which is neither liked nor popular, even among the most Politically Correct.
I have no need to be ashamed of my privileged, white, East Coast, Christian upbringing even as I shed the layers of it that no longer serve me. Any moment I want, I can fly back, put on a navy blue blazer with gold buttons, pick up a Vera Bradley purse and shine up my penny loafers for church. Our church is now mostly Afro-Carribean, so it ought to be an interesting mix. I can play the part of New Yorker or WASP, but I cannot be a part of the world I left behind. After years of questioning myself as to why I was not a lesbian or bisexual, I had to accept that I am not sexually attracted to women whom I otherwise find fun, interesting, beautiful and alluring. It's not that I think that line is intolerable, it is that I don't think I should toy with my feelings or someone else's to find out whether or not I would like sex with them. I have learned that goading people into dating outside their "comfort zone" can be harmful to both parties, because we are all still individual people and not social experiments. I also didn't try to date investment bankers. Conscientiously objecting to what that would bring into my life, besides money.
Bigotry and bias are everywhere, and there are no limits to their manifestation. I am sure as some read this, there will be all sorts of epithets towards me, some thought, some written, some shared, some kept. It is no more possible for me to live someone else's life and belief system as it is for them to live in mine. I understand that, deeply, and acknowledge those biases as neither good nor bad. A person is not their opinion, though, and we are all capable of change. Some will become more liberal as they age, some will become less, and mostly those lines will move according to need to survive. When I wrote of critical thinking recently, and the necessity of removing opinion and belief from assessment, it does not mean they are discounted. One can only practice critical thinking if they are aware of their own biases and opinions- and remove them from interpretation- not consideration. There is what is, and what we would like to there to be. There is what is happening, and what we think ought to be happening. Ultimately, the truth has to include everyone- or it can only be part of the truth.
It is increasingly clear that the sentiments of rage and disgust are not reserved for the most vile among us, but distributed to everyone. Picking them up and living in them is a choice we make, daily, or moment by moment. At any time we can choose not to, even if our opinion has not changed. Acknowledging difference and accepting it is not an assault on our own opinion, after all. It is one less layer of delusion. None of us get through this life without picking and choosing the delusions we prefer. I am going to be reworking my list of approved delusions. It will be interesting to see which of my biases change- and which of my fears disappear.